A crowd of mostly faculty and staff nearly filled Packard Auditorium to capacity on Thursday, Sept. 17, for a mid-day town hall meeting led by Lehigh President Alice P. Gast. The meeting was called to underscore a commitment to implement the recently approved strategic plan, update the campus community on the university’s financial position, and introduce new provost, Patrick V. Farrell.
Farrell joined in fielding questions after the talk, along with Denise Blew, the university’s treasurer and associate vice president of finance.
Gast thanked those across the campus who worked cooperatively to address financial concerns and noted that the endorsement of the university’s long-range strategic plan by the Board of Trustees during bleak economic times is a remarkable endorsement of the vision outlined within it.
“We held a board retreat in July of 2008—the first in 22 years—and of course, the world changed a bit since then,” she said. “But I have to hand it to everyone who said, ‘This is important—we need to move ahead.’ ”
Gast stressed that the plan, the result of a months-long effort that engaged the entire campus community, “will not be sitting on a shelf.”
She urged the entire campus community—faculty, staff and students—to join in the process of moving the plan forward and implementing its broad goals. “This is the hard work—living it and making it happen,” she said.
The Strategic Plan Implementation Group (SPIG) has been charged with engaging the entire university and providing opportunities to “operationalize the plan, start reaching out into the community, and getting things done.”
Gast debuted the password-protected Strategic Plan Implementation Web site
that was developed to allow interaction between members of the Lehigh community and chart progress and developments.
“We want to spend our time looking at where this plan can take us and where we should be heading,” she said. “This new Web site provides a real opportunity to share ideas as a community. I see you all as key participants in this process and I look forward to your input.”
A transformative view
Gast introduced Farrell, who joined Lehigh in July after more than a quarter of century at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to offer what he referred to as a newcomer’s perspective on the strategic plan.
Inspired by the famous quote by Gandhi that suggests we should all “be the change we wish to see,” Farrell said that theme of transformation permeates the higher education experience.
“We often think of transformation in terms of students, and we are supporters of creating a way for students to leave here substantially greater than when they came,” he said. “Education, done well, isn’t just about skills or facts, but a transformation of the way we see ourselves, the way we see the world and the possibilities and opportunities before us.
As catalysts for that transformative process, “we need to be transformational ourselves,” he said. “This should be central to what we do. It makes us true to what we are doing every day across campus.”
Weathering the crisis
In addition to the discussion of the strategic plan, the town hall meeting also provided an update on the university’s current economic standing.
Blew walked the audience through a brief review of Lehigh’s financial picture, and pointed to some indications that the endowment is slowly rebounding following a significant drop. She identified future challenges that include the increasing need for financial aid among students, increasing competition for students, and ongoing reductions in state and national research funding.
“We were well-positioned to weather the financial crisis when it hit a year ago—much more so than many other institutions that were hit harder,” Blew said. “There were some sleepless nights, but the short-term stresses have dissipated.”
Financial aid, however, “continues to be a big concern across the country, and Lehigh is no different,” she said. “Higher education is considered a lagging indicator, which is why we have to continue to exercise good financial stewardship.”
During the last portion of the town hall meeting, Gast responded to a series of questions that were either posed by attendees at the meeting or submitted in advance. They included the benefits of service learning, environmentally friendly campus policies, the size and makeup of the current first-year class, concern over limited classroom space, and career advice for tenure-track professors.
On the latter, Gast urged young faculty to “be true to your passion,” and do the kind of work that intellectually engages them.
“I always tell young faculty that they have to love what they’re doing since gaining tenure only gives you a license to continue to do it,” said Gast, who suggested bouncing ideas off colleagues and working with those who will provide perspective and encouragement.
Her advice was echoed by Farrell, who said young faculty should “figure out what you have a passion for doing” while understanding the landscape they work within.
“Be smart about it,” he said. “Help your colleagues understand the significance of the work. Show excellence. It’s a challenge at times, but don’t shy away from it. Understand what the challenge is and take it on.”